ESA makes a big choice

The European Space Agency has made its selection for the next Large Mission to be flown by ESA, with a launch window in about 2022

and the winner is… JUICE

Jupiter moons orbiter.

Formerly known as Laplace.

The losers were ATHENA – a descoped version of IXO, the third version of the next generation x-ray observatory, and, NGO, aka eLISA – the descoped version of the much beloved LISA, the long proposed space based gravitational wave observatory.

Some residual funding for x-ray optics, and laser systems will be provided to provide technological readiness for future mission opportunities.
The NGO science team is to be disbanded immediately, I hear.
Don’t know if ATHENA will retain some science definition team.

This is a big blow to space based astrophysics.

Here is the Science Program Committee report (ESA-SPC.pdf)

NGO appears to have got the highest science rating but was nuked by concerns raised about technological readiness.

Space based astrophysical science is looking to be in for a rough decade.


  1. #1 Andrew Shevchuk
    April 18, 2012

    It feels like astronomy and astrophysics are going the way of particle physics. What starts as a grand vision becomes an over-budget descoped facility that arrives many years later than planned and which everyone is forced to piggyback on since we put all our eggs in one basket. It certainly doesn’t paint a bright picture of the future, but I suppose there’s little we can do to change it.

  2. #2 crd2
    April 18, 2012

    It seems every year the ideas get bigger and better while the funding gets smaller and smaller. Sad really.

  3. #3 hde226868
    April 18, 2012

    Careful. This is not yet a decision, but a recommendation of the SSAC to the SPC, which makes the final decision and is a political committee, not a scientific one. Changes have occurred at this stage before (e.g., the M-class decisions), mainly driven by industry interests, so at the moment Juice is the likely outcome but not yet 100% secured.

  4. #4 Mark McCaughrean
    April 18, 2012

    To be even more accurate, Steinn, the paper linked to in your post is a proposal by the Executive of ESA’s Science & Robotic Exploration Directorate to the Science Programme Committe (i.e. delegates from each of ESA’s 19 member states): it is asking for a decision, not making one.

    The SSAC reports to the Director of SRE, not to the SPC, so the Executive paper has taken the SSAC’s recommendation as one of a number of inputs. The SPC will meet on May 2 to decide whether or not to accept the Executive’s proposal.

    As for changes having happened at this stage in the past, formally speaking, that did not happen for the M-class missions. The SSAC made a recommendation to the Director, but the proposal made by the Executive to the SPC was different. The SPC accepted the Executive’s proposal.

    And to say that such changes are driven mainly by industrial interests is also not true. There are a great number of issues, including scientific, technical, financial, programmatic, and schedule that need to be taken into account when making these decisions, both at ESA level and in the individual member states. Industrial juste retour is just one factor and in the case of the M1/M2 selection, it was not the overriding one.

  5. #5 Mean and Anomalous
    April 18, 2012

    Regarding this European decision to recommend the Juice mission, E. Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society blog makes the observation that Europe’s space-based missions seem to be going in the planetary science direction, while US/NASA seems to be going more in the direction of astrophysics…

  6. #6 Mark McCaughrean
    April 18, 2012

    Not sure I’d really share Emily’s analysis on this, although I can see where she’s coming from and she gives all the right caveats.

    But independent of the L1 decision still to be made, ESA’s current missions in implementation (i.e. being built) are Gaia (high-precision astrometry of a billion stars), LISA Pathfinder (test of essential technology for gravitational wave detection, plus some science of its own), BepiColombo (mission to Mercury with an ESA polar orbiter and JAXA magnetospheric orbiter), James Webb Space Telescope (Europe is leading two of the four instruments and is providing the launch and science operations support), and most recently, Solar Orbiter (studying the Sun from 0.3 AU and high latitudes).

    Add to that Euclid, a dark energy / matter optical-IR survey mission, likely to be formally adopted into the programme this summer, I think it’s fair to say that ESA’s space science programme is more balanced than Emily’s post proposes.

  7. #7 Jonathan Thornburg
    April 19, 2012

    Having read the ESA SPC report, I don’t see it as quite such a death
    knell for NGO & ATHENA. The key quote is on page 18 of the PDF:

    > Regarding the two missions not selected for the L1 opportunity, namely ATHENA and NGO,
    > the SSAC recognized their scientific value and their “flagship science value”, and
    > recommended continuing the technology activities necessary to make both missions strong
    > candidates for the next L mission opportunity. The Executive intends to implement this
    > recommendation by maintaining, for ATHENA, the technology activities relative to
    > development of the X-ray optics, and for NGO to initiate the technology activities relative to
    > the development of the laser for inter-spacecraft link and possibly for the telescope. System-
    > level industrial activities for both studies will be terminated, as will the Science Study Teams.
    > The Executive may appoint a small group of scientists to advise on the technology activities
    > in question and issue Technical Assistance contracts to industry for focussed definition
    > activities.
    > The Executive plans to release a “Call for Large Missions” in 2013 to define the L2 mission.
    > This call will offer the opportunity to the teams proposing the ATHENA and NGO missions,
    > as well as to any other teams to propose their mission. The details of the Call will depend on
    > the outcome of the 2012 Ministerial-level Council and on the long-term Programme view that
    > will be discussed with the SPC on the occasion of the May 2012 workshop.

    I’m not familiar with the ATHENA team, but certainly a lot of the work on defining NGO and modelling its science return has been done by academics who will likely continue their research on these topics. I expect the NGO team to re-propose for the next (L2) call; hopefully by that time the laser technology will be more mature.

    [Disclaimer: I’m not an unbiased observer; my own research involves
    modelling of eLISA/NGO sources.]

  8. #8 Steinn Sigurdsson
    May 2, 2012

    And the inevitable becomes official

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